Perception vs. Reality: There’s More Alcohol in that Drink than You Think, and It’s Killing You

It’s common to hear the phrase “Go on, just one won’t hurt!” if we turn down a drink. However, alcohol is a powerful chemical that has harmful effects on your health from the first drop. These effects can be short-term or long-term. They can also affect almost any part of your body, from your brain, to your heart, and even in your bones. In this post, we will outline the difference between perception and reality when it comes to drinking alcohol and your health.

How much alcohol is recommended per day?

Obviously, the best thing for your health when it comes to alcohol is not to drink any. Nevertheless, an estimated 70% of Americans do drink alcohol according to a report by NESARC. As such, it is useful to know what amount of alcohol meets the maximum daily recommendations. Well, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), people should not drink more than one “standard drink” per day. 

The issue with the ‘standard drink’ framing is that it is not always clear what meets this recommendation. People might suggest 1 beer would fit the bill and they might be right. However, given beers can be anywhere from 2% to 67.5% and can be served in a range of sizes, this position quickly falls down under scrutiny. With wine and liquor, the same issues arise. A Long Island Ice Tea might come in a glass but does that really mean it counts as one standard drink?

The truth is, the recommended maximum of alcohol per day is much less than you would think. For beer, a 12-ounce can or bottle not over 5% alcohol per volume (ABV) is the upper recommendation.  That’s less than a single pint! For wine, just 5-ounces of 12% ABV vino takes you to the recommended daily limit. When it comes to spirits, just 1.5-ounces at 40% ABV maxes you out for the day. That means a single Long Island could take you close to or even over your weekly limit.

How does alcohol affect your life expectancy?

It’s easy to see how our perceptions of what meets the daily alcohol recommendations are easily twisted away from reality. When it comes to the negative effects alcohol has on our health, many people probably have perceptions even further from reality. Indeed, studies have shown that experts asked ‘What is more dangerous: Alcohol or drugs?’ consistently rank alcohol as being more damaging than any other drug, including methamphetamines, crack cocaine, and even heroin.

These rankings are often backed up in vital health statistics, such as life expectancy and cause of death. For example, every year there are an estimated 88,000 deaths from alcohol-related causes. A Lancet study also found that heavy users of alcohol (more than 12-ounces per week) were likely to die 5 years younger than non-drinkers. They also found that potential heart health benefits from alcohol consumption were reversed when people drunk more than 3.5-ounces per week. 

What affects does alcohol have on your body?

If the statistics on life-expectancy don’t fill you with a little bit of dread, the bad news is not over yet. Indeed, alcohol has a range of negative effects on your body in both the short and long term that may lead you to consider changing your relationship with this often misunderstood substance. The more alcohol you drink, the more likely you are to suffer this range of conditions. Here, we outline some of the negative health effects of alcohol in the short and longer-term and how stopping drinking can help:

How Health Effect Benefits of stopping drinking
Long term heavy alcohol misuse Pancytopenia – This refers to bone marrow suppression. Specifically, excessive alcohol misuse can lead to the suppression of red and white blood cells. These are vital for the body’s immune system and without them the body is starved of oxygen. Stopping drinking often leads to restored health.
Short term heavy alcohol misuse Alcohol poisoning – This occurs when a person drinks a large amount of alcohol over a short time period. Symptoms include vomiting, confusion, becoming unconscious, and pale or blue-tinged skin. It can damage health, cause comas, and even cause death. People should not be put in cold showers or given coffee as these home solutions can worsen effects. Alcohol levels can continue to rise in a person’s blood for up 40 minutes after their last drink. The sooner you stop the sooner your body can process the alcohol. 
Long term medium to heavy misuse of alcohol Dementia & cognitive decline – Alcohol misuse can cause dementia due to its impact on the brain. This problem does not only affect the elderly and patients in their 40s are not uncommon.  Some of the cognitive damage caused by alcohol to the brain is reversed when alcohol is not consumed for longer periods of time or abstinence is practiced. 
Short or long term alcohol misuse Social Implications – People are much more likely to suffer accidents and injuries requiring hospitalization when drinking. People commonly lose possessions when drunk and with lowered inhibitions are more likely to practice unsafe sex increasing the risk of sexually transmitted infections. Unemployment, homelessness, and financial difficulty can arise due to issues with alcohol. Violence, antisocial behavior, and domestic abuse are also linked to the misuse of alcohol.  Stopping drinking can help prevent one night’s binge drinking doing a life’s worth of damage.
Long term alcohol misuse Cancer – Even low levels of alcohol misuse can increase the risk of certain types of cancer. Women are particularly vulnerable as breast cancer can be increased by as little as one drink a day in some people. The risk of getting liver, colorectal, esophageal, throat, and nose cancers are also heightened for men and women.    Stopping drinking can help the body recover its ability to recognize and destroy cancer cells more effectively.

The importance of reality vs perception

When we don’t think something is as harmful as it is, substance misuse becomes easy. The table above shows just some of the issues associated with alcohol misuse, whether the misuse is in the short or the long term. However, the table is not extensive and alcohol misuse also increases the risk of things like cardiovascular illness, strokes, high blood pressure, depression, impotence, infertility, and more. 

Exploring the dangers of alcohol demonstrates the importance of raising awareness of the issue. Indeed, whilst alcohol is legal and is an integral part of many cultures, when people look into it, they may think the dangers outweigh the rewards. Just because alcohol is legal, doesn’t mean the alcohol in your drink is not doing you more harm than good.

Written by Jordan

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